People v. Serravo

Decision Date13 January 1992
Docket NumberNo. 90SC322,90SC322
Citation823 P.2d 128
PartiesThe PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Petitioner, v. Robert Pasqual SERRAVO, Respondent.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

Robert R. Gallagher, Jr., Dist. Atty., Eighteenth Judicial Dist., James C. Sell, Chief Deputy Dist. Atty., Englewood, for petitioner.

Fogel, Keating & Wagner, P.C., Steven R. Polidori, Betty Ann Bass, for respondent.

Justice QUINN delivered the Opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to review the decision of the court of appeals in People v. Serravo, 797 P.2d 782 (Colo.App.1990), in order to determine the meaning of the phrase "incapable of distinguishing right from wrong" in Colorado's statutory definition of insanity codified at section 16-8-101(1), 8A C.R.S. (1986). The trial court, in the insanity phase of a criminal prosecution, instructed the jury that the phrase "incapable of distinguishing right from wrong" refers to a person who appreciates that his conduct is criminal but, due to a mental disease or defect, believes that the conduct is morally right. The prosecution, pursuant to section 16-12-102(1), 8A C.R.S. (1986), appealed the trial court's ruling on the question of law, and the court of appeals approved the ruling. 1 The court of appeals held that the meaning of "incapable of distinguishing right from wrong" is not confined to a defendant's knowledge of legal right or legal wrong but rather refers to a defendant's cognitive inability to distinguish right from wrong under societal standards of morality, and that the trial court's instruction did not inject a subjective standard of morality into the test of legal insanity. Id. at 783. The court of appeals also held that a deific-decree delusion is an exception to the societal standard of moral wrong and that, under such an exception, a defendant may be adjudicated insane if the defendant knew that the act was illegal and morally wrong under societal standards of morality but, due to a mental disease or defect, believed that God had ordained the act.

Although we disagree with the court of appeals' conclusion that the trial court's instruction did not incorporate a subjective standard of morality into the right-wrong test for legal insanity, we affirm that part of the court of appeals' decision which holds that the phrase "incapable of distinguishing right from wrong" refers to a cognitive inability to distinguish right from wrong under existing societal standards of morality rather than, as implied by the trial court's instruction, under a purely subjective and personal standard of morality. In addition, rather than characterizing the deific-decree delusion as an exception to the right-wrong test for legal insanity, we hold that a defendant may be judged legally insane where, as here, the defendant's cognitive ability to distinguish right from wrong with respect to an act charged as a crime has been destroyed as a result of a psychotic delusion that God has ordered him to commit the act. Finally, we hold that federal and state principles of double jeopardy prohibit the retrial of the defendant on the issue of his sanity or insanity at the time of the commission of the acts charged against him.


Serravo was charged in a multi-count information with crimes of attempt to commit first degree murder after deliberation, 2 assault in the first degree, 3 and the commission of crimes of violence. 4 The charges arose out of the stabbing of his wife, Joyce Serravo, on May 10, 1987. After the charges were filed, Serravo entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity and was thereafter examined by several psychiatrists. The issue of legal insanity was tried to a jury, which returned a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. 5

The evidence at the insanity trial established that the stabbing occurred under the following circumstances. On the evening of May 9, 1987, Serravo, who was a King Soopers union employee, visited striking employees at the King Soopers store near his home. Serravo returned home at approximately 12:30 a.m. on May 10. After sitting in the kitchen and reading the Bible, he went upstairs to the bedroom where his wife was sleeping, stood over her for a few minutes, and then stabbed her in the back just below the shoulder blade. When his wife awoke, Serravo told her that she had been stabbed by an intruder and that she should stay in bed while he went downstairs to call for medical help.

Police officers were later dispatched to the home. Serravo told the officers that he had gone to the King Soopers store and had left the garage door open, that the door leading to the house from the garage was unlocked, that when he returned from King Soopers and was reading the Bible he heard his front door slam, and that he went upstairs to check on his wife and children and saw that his wife was bleeding from a wound in her back. Serravo signed a consent to search his home and gave the police clothes that he was wearing at the time of his discovery of his wife's injury.

Several weeks after the stabbing Serravo's wife found letters written by Serravo. In these letters Serravo admitted the stabbing, stating that "[o]ur marriage was severed on Mother's Day when I put the knife in your back," that "I have gone to be with Jehovah in heaven for three and one-half days," and that "I must return for there is still a great deal of work to be done." After reading the letters, Serravo's wife telephoned him in order to confront him about the letters. Serravo told his wife that God had told him to stab her in order to sever the marriage bond. Mrs. Serravo informed the police of these facts and Serravo was thereafter arrested and charged.

The prosecution presented expert psychiatric testimony on Serravo's sanity at the time of the stabbing. Doctor Ann Seig, a resident psychiatrist in training at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, examined Serravo pursuant to a court ordered evaluation of his mental state. Serravo gave the doctor a history of having worked on a plan, inspired by his relationship to God, to establish a multi-million dollar sports complex called Purely Professionals. This facility, according to Serravo, would enable him to achieve his goal of teaching people the path to perfection. On the night of the stabbing, Serravo, according to the history given to Doctor Seig, was excited because he finally believed that he had received some positive encouragement in his endeavor from some King Soopers union members, but he was discouraged by some inner "evil spirits" who kept raising troublesome questions about how he would deal with his wife's lack of encouragement and support. Doctor Seig diagnosed Serravo as suffering either from an organic delusional disorder related to left temporal lobe damage as a result of an automobile accident some years ago or paranoid schizophrenia. 6 Either diagnosis, in Doctor Seig's opinion, would adequately account for Serravo's delusional belief that he had a privileged relationship with God as the result of which he was in direct communication with God. Doctor Seig testified that Serravo was operating under this delusional system when he stabbed his wife and these delusions caused him to believe that his act was morally justified. Doctor Seig, however, was of the view that Serravo, because he was aware that the act of stabbing was contrary to law, was sane at the time of the stabbing.

Serravo presented four psychiatrists and a clinical psychologist on the issue of his legal insanity. The first psychiatrist, Doctor Frederick Miller, was of the opinion that on the night of the stabbing Serravo was under the psychotic delusion that it was his divine mission to kill his wife and that he was morally justified in stabbing her because God had told him to do so. Doctor Miller was not quite certain whether Serravo's psychotic disorder was paranoid schizophrenia, a paranoid delusional disorder, or an organic delusional disorder. Although uncertain of the exact diagnostic label applicable to Serravo, Doctor Miller was of the opinion that Serravo's mental illness made it impossible for him to distinguish right from wrong even though Serravo was probably aware that such conduct was legally wrong.

Another psychiatrist, Doctor Eric Kaplan, was the attending psychiatrist at the University of Colorado Health Services and a member of the faculty of the medical school. Doctor Kaplan supervised Doctor Ann Seig during her examination of Serravo and also made an independent evaluation of Serravo's mental condition. It was Doctor Kaplan's opinion that Serravo was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia at the time of the stabbing and was laboring under the paranoid delusion that his wife stood in the way of his divine mission of completing the large sports complex, that Serravo believed that the stabbing was the right thing to do, and that Serravo, as a result of his mental illness, was unable to distinguish right from wrong with respect to the stabbing. Two other psychiatrists, Doctor Geoffrey Heron and Doctor Seymour Sundell, offered the opinion that Serravo, at the time of the stabbing, was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and a paranoid delusion about God which so affected his cognitive ability as to render him incapable of distinguishing right from wrong as normal people would be able to do in accordance with societal standards of morality.

Doctor Leslie Cohen, a clinical psychologist, also testified about Serravo's mental condition at the time of the stabbing. Having conducted extensive psychological testing of Serravo, Doctor Cohen was able to offer an opinion on Serravo's reality testing, his emotional reactivity, and his volition, all of which were relevant to the functioning of his conscience. The doctor was of the opinion that Serravo's conscience was based on a false belief or delusion about his magical powers as a result of his direct communication with God. Serravo, in the doctor's view, was suffering from a...

To continue reading

Request your trial
29 cases
  • State v. Wilson
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • August 26, 1997 a purely personal standard tends to undermine the "moral culture on which our societal norms of behavior are based." People v. Serravo, supra, 823 P.2d at 138. There may well be cases in which a defendant's delusional ideation causes him to harbor personal beliefs that so cloud his cogni......
  • State v. Jacobson
    • United States
    • North Dakota Supreme Court
    • March 15, 1996
    ...139 Ariz. 98, 677 P.2d 261 (1984) [retrial barred when mistrial granted based on egregious prosecutorial misconduct]; People v. Serravo, 823 P.2d 128 (Colo.1992) [retrial barred whenever defendant obtains a favorable result at first trial]; State v. Estrada, 71 Haw. 260, 787 P.2d 692 (1990)......
  • Lundgren v. Mitchell
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit
    • March 13, 2006
    ...experiencing a "trance" in which God revealed that he would be cast into the lake of fire if he refused to do so); People v. Serravo, 823 P.2d 128, 130 (Colo. 1992) (en banc) (jury found defendant not guilty by reason of insanity for stabbing his wife "in order to sever the marriage bond" i......
  • Kahler v. Kansas
    • United States
    • U.S. Supreme Court
    • March 23, 2020
    ...his act violated the law yet believed it morally justified. See, e.g. , Schmidt , 216 N.Y. at 339, 110 N.E. at 949 ; People v. Serravo , 823 P.2d 128, 135 (Colo. 1992).1 Kansas law provides that "[i]t shall be a defense to a prosecution under any statute that the defendant, as a result of m......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
3 books & journal articles
    • United States
    • Colorado Bar Association Colorado Rules and C.R.S. of Evidence Annotated (CBA)
    • Invalid date
    ...of the Colorado Constitution even when the trial court erred as a matter of law in granting the judgment of acquittal. People v. Serravo, 823 P.2d 128 (Colo. 1992). Guilty plea not jeopardy in a continuing proceeding. The rule that a plea of guilty constitutes jeopardy has its proper applic......
  • G. Insanity
    • United States
    • The Criminal Law of South Carolina (SCBar) Chapter VI Defenses
    • Invalid date
    ...statute obviates the necessity for what has sometimes proved to be a difficult task of statutory interpretation. See People v. Serravo, 823 P.2d 128 (Colo. 1992) (a split decision, concluding that "incapable of distinguishing right from wrong" refers to moral as opposed to legal right and w......
    • United States
    • Colorado Bar Association Colorado Appellate Handbook (CBA) Chapter 15 Disposition of Appeal
    • Invalid date
    ...a retrial of the defendant even though the judgment was improper and was based on grounds unrelated to factual guilt." People v. Serravo, 823 P.2d 128, 141 (Colo. 1992). If the appellate court reverses a defendant's conviction due to insufficient evidence, the case must be remanded for dism......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT